How do you conclude a heart-pounding story with enough emotion to fulfill reader expectations?
Publish Insights 16 July 2022
Don’t End Abruptly
“It’s an awfully long road that doesn’t have an ending.” A dear friend of the family said that to me shortly before succumbing to cancer. When writing a story, how do you know when you’ve reached the end of your story’s life? A pedestrian method is to begin the last sentence with the phrase, “In conclusion—.“
A good ending is no accident. Nor does it come about as a result of reaching a predetermined word count. It is best achieved by working from an outline. This structures your objectives, builds your plot, and resolves questions raised throughout the story.
But let’s be honest. Creative writers and novelists often deviate from the outline—if there is one. Character and subplot development can require meandering details that eventually come together when not constrained to story length.
The type of story has a bearing on the conclusion. A comedy requires a punchline. A clinical study ends with results. A drama concludes with a good feeling of satisfaction. A thriller usually leaves your heart in your throat, but may also resolve a mystery.
Milder than a thriller, a mystery ending can take several directions. It might have a cliffhanger that will be answered in a sequel. It can neatly tie together several plot twists in an “aha” moment. Or a mystery might provide enough clues for the reader to draw his own conclusion.
The best conclusions strive for an emotion. That should not be frustration over abruptness. Do you want to impart fear?
“In desperation, Eduardo, backs into a corner, dials for help, but there is no signal. Thrusting against the door by the pursuer becomes insistent. The rhythmic pounding matches the volume of Eduardo’s heart beating within his chest. Then, the door jam splits and a blinding light frames the silhouette.”
Is that the ending? Based on prior events, it could be. Obviously, there was a fearful pursuit. Is the intended victim meeting his demise? It seems so, or you could add a twist.
“As his eyes adjust, the silhouette takes on an unexpected form.”
What does that mean? Did he previously misidentify the killer, or is this not the killer at all?
“It is the outline of the friend Eduardo was trying to reach. While smiling and extending his hand for assistance, the dark shadow expands, enveloping the familiar figure. His friend lets out a blood curdling scream as his knees buckle, before the weight of his body lands against Eduardo.”
Was the friend seeking the same refuge from danger as Eduardo? Is Eduardo responsible for his friend’s death by locking him out? Will Eduardo be the next victim or is the villain satisfied?
“Rotating his head towards the wall with wide eyes remaining fixed toward the doorway, Eduardo crouches motionless, silencing his own gasps, and unbeating his pounding heart.”
At this point, you’ve committed to more detail. Will it be a whole new scene or perhaps a sequel? Obviously, the villain has just claimed another victim. Does he leave the premises or continue his rampage? Is Eduardo stranded far from civilization or can he just walk away to safety? Will Eduardo become the suspect of his friend’s demise?
It is evident, that adding more details can either resolve a story or compound questions in the minds of readers. You don’t have to reserve all plot twists for the ending. It’s often better to spread them out. In order to wrap up the events, you might tie together loose ends.
“Another shadow fills the bright doorway. It is that of the one who ended the life of Eduardo’s friend. The bulge on his shoulder, from which there is the voice of a radio dispatcher reveals his identity. This prominent figure wearing a dark uniform saved Eduardo from his unsuspecting killer. He then hoists Eduardo onto his shoulder and runs out of the building, just before it bursts into flames.”
As a writer, your story might require a lengthy journey. But it must come to an end. As a reader, are you satisfied with the outcome? Was it exciting, or perhaps intense? Have enough questions been answered? These are the questions and emotions you strive to sate when writing a dramatic conclusion.
Even a good formula for dramatic conclusions requires variation if you write many stories. Otherwise, loyalists will anticipate your predictable unpredictability.
Another variation is the extrapolated conclusion, which may be an effective plot twist. Lead the reader along one path. Then change directions entirely at the conclusion. Without specifically spelling out how the story ends, the reader deduces, or extrapolates, based on earlier details.
“In conclusion,” the final tip for knowing when you’re really done is that you have a good feeling after reading your story to yourself.
UPDATED: AUG 3, 2023